PLANS to enforce a "no-fly" zone in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq have revived long-held fears that Western countries will encourage the division of the Arab world into mini-states along ethnic and sectarian lines to consolidate their control of the oil-rich region.
The possibility that Iraq could be divided into three separate regions - a northern region where the Gulf-war coalition leaders already protect Kurdish refugees; the southern area, below the 32nd parallel, where Iraqi Shiites live; and Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland in between - poses a serious dilemma for United States allies in the Gulf.
These countries are torn between their determination to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and concern that an Iraqi breakup could fuel sectarian and ethnic divisions elsewhere.
The relatively strong Arab reaction to the "no-fly" zone, which is being developed by the US, Britain, and France, contrasts with the support that pro-Western Arab governments have given to previous steps to undermine Saddam's government.
Kuwait has been the only government to publicly support the "no-fly" zone, and all Arab governments so far have rejected any step that could lead to the fragmentation of Iraq.
According to Arab analysts, and judging from official statements, Arab leaders have to decide whether they can live with a plan that could get rid of Saddam, but that would also leave the region more vulnerable to sectarian and ethnic strife. Consequently the "no-fly" zone has provoked a heated debate in the Arab world over which is more crucial: removing Saddam or preserving the unity of Iraq.
Some voices in the pro-Western Arab press have argued in recent days that Saddam's removal is the priority and that his departure will preserve the unity of Iraq.
"Recent developments can, therefore be considered as indications of a new, bolder position, which will deal with the situation on a realistic basis and abandon the superstition that survival of the regime is essential to guarantee the unity of Iraq," said the London-based Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Hayat.
Al-Ahram, the semi-official Egyptian newspaper, argued that Saddam's removal will free Iraq from the repercussions of the international embargo and any plans to partition the country.
Opponents to the Western interference in Iraq counter that the unity of Iraq should not be sacrificed in order to undermine the Iraqi president.
"Saddam Hussein is a mortal human being.... But it is difficult for us to envisage a unified Iraq if these plans to fragment it on seceterian and ethnic basis [proceed]," said the London-based Palestinian daily Al-Qods Al-Arabi.
What many Arabs appear to fear the most is that the partition of Iraq will be a precedent for the setting up of other ethnic and sectarian mini-states in other Arab countries.
"What is taking place in the south and north of Iraq will be a dangerous precedent that will open the door for the creation of `autonomous zones' for the Maronites and the Druze in Lebanon, the Copts in Egypt, the Berbers in North Africa and for the Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia," said Al-Qods, reflecting fears that such prospects will undermine Arab nationalism and leave the Arab world under the dominance of Israel and Iran.
SUCH concerns have been repeatedly expressed by Arab officials, especially following the 1979 Iranian Shiite revolution that alerted Arab governments, particularly the pro-Western leaders, to the dangers of the spread of Shiite fundamentalism.
That fear was one of the major factors that prompted the pro-Western Arab governments to stand behind Saddam in his war against Iran. Iraq was viewed as the only power capable of stopping the expansion of the Iranian brand of Shiite fundamentalism.
Jordan, which has opposed the Western plan for southern Iraq, was among the first to warn against sectarian and ethnic divisions that could tear the Arab world apart.
In the early 1980s, Prince Hassan, King Hussein's younger brother, warned that the region would head toward Balkanization, if Arab solidarity were not achieved and the Arab-Israeli conflict were not solved.
The feeling in Jordan has always been that the country's existence is at stake if political conflicts in the region take sectarian and ethnic forms.
One main argument used by Jordanian officials is that once sectarian extremism is allowed to take over, it will prompt both Israeli extremists to expand into Jordan and Islamic fundamentalists - who are very influential in this country - to challenge the status quo.
"Any move to harm the unity of the Iraqi people or infringe on Iraqi territorial sovereignty will shake the stability and security of the region," said Jordanian Prime Minister Kamel Abu Jaber.
There are also indications that there is a growing resentment in the Gulf, including in Kuwait, toward Western moves in Iraq. In the last 10 days, a number of articles have appeared in the Kuwaiti and the United Arab Emirates press warning against the partition of Iraq.
"I do not believe that anybody in the Gulf, including decision-makers, can really support the division of Iraq.... many in the Gulf resent it, but in the short term they are aware that they might not be able to do much about it because the Arab world's hands are tied," said Dr. Ali Kawari, a sociologist in Qatar.